Tackling unprecedented prison population

Action to address challenges.

Emergency release of short-term prisoners is being proposed to address the impacts of an unprecedented rise in the prison population, Justice Secretary Angela Constance has confirmed.

The prison population has increased sharply by around 400 in the past two months, and 13% since the beginning of 2023. At 8,348 it is one of the highest levels ever recorded.

Despite significant work taken forward across the justice system since the population began rising last year, the Justice Secretary has confirmed that there is now a critical risk to the continued safe and effective operation of prisons.

The Justice Secretary has proposed taking urgent action, including the proposed emergency release of short-term prisoners who were due to be released within the next short while. This will only be done with Parliament’s agreement in this instance, and public safety will remain a priority.

If agreed, an early release scheme, which would have safeguards built in, would mean:

  • only prisoners serving short sentences of under four years who have 180 days or less left to serve will be considered for release
  • prisoners such as those given a life sentence, or serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse, will be automatically excluded
  • prison governors will have the power to veto the release of any prisoner they deem an immediate risk to a specific individual or group

Following a statement to Parliament, Ms Constance underlined the importance of public safety.

She said:

“Protecting the public remains an absolute priority and the bedrock of every decision that we take. I have consistently said that I would only use emergency early release if it was absolutely necessary, so this is not a decision that I take lightly - and I appreciate the concerns it will raise.

“Due to the rapid rise in the prison population - creating an unprecedented situation similar to challenges faced across the UK - immediate action is needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Scottish Prison Service staff. We need to ensure prisons can function effectively, focus on those who pose the greatest risk of harm, and provide programmes that help reduce reoffending.

“Our proposal for emergency early release has specific safeguards built in. It will only be available to those serving short sentences under four years who are due to be released within the coming months. In addition, no one serving a sentence for domestic abuse or sexual offences will be released, and a veto can be applied by governors for anyone deemed a risk to a specific individual or group.

“I am committed to ensuring that Parliament considers the approach before a single prisoner is released. We will also be engaging with victims organisations, local authorities and other key partners.

“Scotland is not alone in managing a high prison population. England and Wales are also experiencing similar issues and are operating a rolling early release process to manage prison overcrowding, which they introduced in October 2023, and have recently extended.”


Justice Secretary’s statement to the Scottish Parliament on 16 May 2024

Prison population: position paper - gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

Prison Population: information note

The arrangements announced in Parliament build on a range of other key measures already taken to deal with the high prison population, including strengthening the availability of community-based sentences, which figures indicate can be more effective in reducing re-offending among those who have committed less serious offences. These measures include:

  • the Scottish Government has increased funding for community justice by £14 million in 2024-25, to £148 million in total
  • to address the high numbers of individuals in prison on remand, for example ahead of trial or pre-sentence, electronically monitored bail has been introduced with the expansion of bail supervision to all areas. Usage of bail supervision is now at record levels 
  • we will implement measures in early July to enable courts to take into account time spent on electronically-monitored bail when sentencing, as Parliament legislated for in the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023.
  • work continues across the justice system and beyond, including with health and social care colleagues in particular, to identify other actions that could be taken.


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